Ich Bin Ein Indianer

Germany’s obsession with a past it never had

Cowboys-Injuns (1994). Michael Belmore

In one of its more equivocal forms, the experience of homesickness is rooted in an intuition that there is not and never has been a home. This occurred to me on an unseasonably warm spring afternoon, shortly after arriving in the town of Regensburg, deep in the heart of Bavaria. Outside the train station, I found a cab and asked the driver if he knew of the Regensburg Cowboy Club. He gave me the once-over. “Cowboy Club?” he queried. (I was lacking the requisite Western attire.) “Yes,” I said. “The Regensburg Cowboy Club.” He shrugged. “No problem,” he said.

I was in Regensburg on the advice of Murray Small Legs, my Blackfoot guide to Germany’s famously flourishing Indian hobbyist movement. As I was soon to discover, the presence of a Canadian at the Cowboy Club was a special occasion. My trip was a reversal of a pilgrimage that, for most hobbyists, is a right of passage: Instead of coming to North America to see real Native Americans, I was journeying to Germany to see pretend Indians.

Murray Small Legs, incidentally, is not a hobbyist; he is a real Blackfoot, from the Peigan reserve, in Alberta. He has been living in a suburb of Berlin since 1997, part of a growing aboriginal expatriate community in a country where an estimated 60,000 Germans convert, on weekends and holidays, into Nineteenth-Century Native Americans. For those who haven’t witnessed its curious pageantry, Indian hobbyism describes the imitation and study of Native-American culture by non–Native Americans. Typically, the hobbyist gatherings in Germany are organized around a central event, such as a powwow, a sweat lodge, or a rodeo. It was just such a gathering that I hoped to witness in Regensburg. The Regensburg Club, Murray Small Legs had told me, was hosting a weekend rodeo, and the local cowboys were expecting large contingents of dress-up Indians.

Located on the outskirts of town and forming a narrow border between a housing development and the farmland beyond, the Regensburg Cowboy Club is surrounded by a tall, Western-style wooden fence. The club occupies two or three acres of grassy land and is divided by a long, rectangular log cabin. On one side of this cabin is the Club’s camping ground, which, on this day, was dotted with brightly painted teepees. The other side was occupied by what looked to be a miniature Nineteenth-Century American frontier town. The fence, I realized, was designed not only to keep strangers out, but to mark a symbolic division of present-day Germany from the wild, unbridled West. Murray Small Legs had told me to ask at the gate for the “Chief.” The cowboy at the gate was shirtless, wearing a black ten-gallon hat, a leather vest, a pair of seriously new gwg jeans, cowboy boots, and a sheriff’s badge. “The Chief,” I said.

As I waited, I caught my first glimpse of Nineteenth-Century American life through the gate. A middle-aged German woman, wearing a horn-trimmed fur hat and a buckskin jumpsuit, chased after three young kids in fringed leather pants. I was fixed on a group of boys just behind them — who were dressed in leather loincloths, with American and Confederate flags on their heads — when the Chief approached. His outfit was similar to the gatekeeper’s, except it included a shirt, a handsome number of the classic, pearl-buttoned, Western variety. He extended his hand. Here it was, my first physical contact with Germany’s hobbyist movement, and it felt good.

My first real clue to the scale of the Indian hobbyist movement in Germany came during a meeting with Murray Small Legs in a Berlin coffee shop. “I would say that within one hundred metres of where we’re sitting there’s a hobby Indian,” he said. This statement seemed outlandish until I began to look further into the subject. At large festivals, such as the annual East German gathering known simply as “the week,” (where it is not uncommon to find thousands of white Indians,) the reality of Indianthusiasmus flashes briefly into sight. Hearing of mega-powwows such as these made me think Murray Small Legs might be right. Perhaps our waitress, with her tightly pressed uniform, had just dropped off her buckskins and feathers at
the cleaners.

The Chief, also known as the president of the Regensburg Cowboy Club, also known as Jim, led me up a hillside to the Club’s architectural and spiritual hub, a replica Nineteenth-Century frontier town, complete with a saloon, a sheriff’s office, and a plethora of lawmen. Wolf Canyon Town, which covered about an acre of dusty ground, appeared to be trapped in a psychic skirmish, struggling to decide whether it was a low-budget Western set or a German beer garden. In many ways, the scene outside the saloon was thoroughly Bavarian — picnic tables, beer steins, ashtrays, and clouds of cigarette smoke. Beneath these clouds, however, a rapid retreat from present-day Germany was taking place. The benches were occupied by Germans, some of them from Bavaria, but they had gone to great lengths to conceal this circumstance, donning elaborate “red Indian” and cowboy disguises. Beads, feathers, bone breastplates, and buckskin trousers abounded.

A quick glance around Wolf Canyon revealed that Germans who dream of the West generally dream of being Indians. Vastly outnumbered by their feathered friends, twenty or so cowboys, all wearing sheriffs’ badges, circled lazily around the central picnic area of town, which was evenly divided between the Düsseldorf and the “Free-Bavaria Indians,” who numbered perhaps 300 in total.

The Chief, who proved to be a charming host, led me to a crowded picnic bench and introduced me to Heinz Andringa, a senior member of the Düsseldorf club. Andringa, a house painter from Düsseldorf in his mid-fifties, told me his interest in Indian culture began when he saw Indians on TV as a child — galloping across the screen, the incarnation of freedom and bravery. With a deeply tanned complexion that had long passed into the danger zone, Andringa bore an eerie resemblance to the adventure-novel image of the “red Indian.” He explained, in English that was broken but decipherable, that the German fascination with Indians typically “builds in childhood and is a little bit fixed in the head.” Like most of his Düsseldorf brothers, Heinz wore very little — a buckskin loincloth, a beaded sheath, and, jutting from this, an immensely intimidating knife. He solicited my expert, Canadian, opinion about his Indianness, then threw his arm around my shoulder and looked deeply into my eyes. “I have a feeling in my heart,” he said, “just like an Indian.”

This was not my first acquaintance with the notion of an “Indian feeling.” Several days before my departure for Regensburg, Murray Small Legs had suggested to me that the German interest in all things Native American is connected to a form of cultural, perhaps cultivated, schizophrenia. Some Germans, he said, “have an ‘Indian’ feeling, they believe that on the outside they are German, but on the inside they are Indian.”

At around three in the afternoon, the flow of cowboys and Indians into Wolf Canyon began to dwindle, and Jim wandered over to my picnic table. The rodeo, he said, was about to begin. He chose this moment, moreover, to tell me what I had long suspected: Jim was only his Club name. His real name was Helmut Ring. “Jim,” of course, was much more appropriate. Yelling “Go Helmut Go!” as the Chief displayed his lassoing and knife-throwing expertise and, later, as he belted out the classics of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams in karaoke, would have murdered Jim’s moment.

It soon became evident that Wolf Canyon was not a world-class rodeo town. Bereft of beasts, the event lacked the drama of its North-American models, but the German frontiersmen didn’t seem to mind. The two main events — a lasso and a whip contest — involved elaborate simulations of animal contact. At the lassoing station, a three-poled wooden contraption took the place of bulls and horses; even so, only one or two people were able to complete the manoeuvre. The whipping competition also involved a three-pronged apparatus whose wooden arms were designed — through a stroke of baroque architectural genius — to support a series of straw targets. This event was won by a young fellow who obviously spent most of his free time snapping the tips off plastic straws.

Midway through the rodeo, I was approached by a man in a modest buckskin loincloth, who introduced himself as Klaus. He revealed that some familiar frontier tensions had made their way into Wolf Canyon. Klaus had the strenuously purposeful look of one who was seeing life through a few too many beer bottles. He leaned in close, pointing to one of the cowboys. “These people here,” he said, “it’s not the same. The cowboys, they are just, like, ‘We are cowboys. We are the best.’ But we here, we, it’s just for fun.”

Klaus found an outspoken ally in one of his tribesmen, who had overheard his remark. The man raised his glass, “Fun,” he yelled. “Fun, fun, fun!” The notion of fun was an odd place to stake the difference between cowboy and Indian imitation. As Heinz’s Indian feeling suggested, Indianists who flock to imaginary towns such as Wolf Canyon may be having fun, but they are not just having fun. Indeed, the most striking difference between the cowboy and the Indian idea of fun lies in the relative detachment of the cowboys. The cowboys were after the prizes — the plastic trophies and the kitschy belt buckles. The idea of being real cowboys didn’t seem to be part of their experience. The Indians, on the other hand, were more concerned about their Indianness than they were about the outcome of the rodeo. They were after something far more elusive: authenticity.

The German impulse to play Indian erupted in the late years of the Nineteenth Century, in the wake of a travelling rodeo-and-circus craze that presented Native Americans both as noble savages and as murderous enemies of civilization. The most famous of these productions was Buffalo Bill’s wildly successful Wild West Show. A consummate and cantankerous showman, William Cody first transported the Wild West to Europe in 1887, billing his spectacle as “The Drama of Civilization.” The principal players in this drama were Buffalo Bill and the diminutive sharpshooter Little Annie Oakley, but there was also a cast of Native Americans, primarily Oglala Lakotas from South Dakota, some of them looking for an escape from the poverty and cultural devastation of reservations. Orchestrating a spectacular suppression of savagery, Bill and Annie emerged not only as showstoppers but as heroes of enlightenment. True to the adventure of “Civilization,” Cody’s domesticated West blossomed from the barrel of a gun. “The bullet,” his program announced, “is a kind of pioneer of civilization. Although its mission is often deadly, it is useful and necessary.”

In Europe, and especially in Germany, the Wild West show took an unexpected twist — for many audience members, the domestic lives of Cody’s exotic chiefs and warriors overshadowed their theatrical performances. Tirelessly enterprising, Cody seized this opportunity to expand his show. Audience members were invited to wander among the performers’ living quarters and witness a live exhibit of Native Americans in their “off time.” The Native Americans now found themselves performing twenty-four hours a day, demonstrating “typical Indian” modes of cooking, eating, and sleeping — when they were not acting the part of bloodthirsty savages.

The Native Americans who travelled with the Wild West included such eminent figures as Sitting Bull and Black Elk. In his autobiography, dictated in 1931 to the American poet John Neihardt, Black Elk reflected that he was motivated to join the show by the prospect of learning from the Europeans, the Wasichus across the great water. “I was in despair, and I even thought that if the Wasichus had a better way, then maybe my people should live that way. I know now that this was foolish, but I was young and in despair.” Other recruits faced more pressing reasons for joining. Following the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, Cody negotiated with the army to have one hundred Sioux prisoners placed in his custody as actors in the show’s 1891–92 tour. Fresh from defeat and expropriation, the prisoners were uniquely qualified for his Drama of Civilization; they had already learned its lessons.

Germany proved heartily receptive to the marvels of untamed America. Its special affinity for the frontier was already being nurtured through literature. Before the great age of long-haul tourism, Germans were passionate armchair travellers, and topping the list of imaginary destinations was the American frontier. During the Nineteenth Century, Germany was the world’s leading consumer of American and American-themed novels. In addition to imported and translated works, as many as one thousand titles of fiction based on Native American characters and themes were published in Germany between 1875 and 1900. Earlier in the century, the stories of James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans) and other purveyors of frontier fiction were devoured by Germans. Beginning in the 1870s, they would have their Western dreams realized in the curious figure of Karl May, arguably the key piece in the puzzle of German Indianism.

Punctuated by fraud and theft convictions, including a jail sentence for impersonating a police officer, May’s life story was almost as improbable, but rarely as glorious, as the adventures of his frontier hero, Old Shatterhand. The most widely read German author of all time (over 25 million of his books have been printed in Germany alone), May was admired for his exotic tales of life on the American frontier, which recounted the adventures of a German wanderer and his Apache companion, Winnetou. Although he would not cross the Atlantic until the final years of his life, May insisted that the Shatterhand stories were based on his own Western escapades — that he was, in effect, Old Shatterhand. This confusion of real and imagined experience seems oddly appropriate for the figure who has, more than any other, nurtured the German dream of a special kinship with Native Americans, of an “Indian feeling.” Among the dress-up Indians at Regensburg, May was acknowledged as a vital, if slightly embarrassing, inspiration.

The perverse allure of Karl May is particularly evident in the diversity of his admirers. Both Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler identified May as their favourite author. The more telling of these testimonials belongs to Hitler, who saw in Winnetou the “ideal of a truly noble person.” In the late stages of the Second World War, as Germany suffered crushing defeat on the Russian front, Hitler turned to May’s Winnetou fables for military and spiritual guidance. “I have ordered every officer to carry, besides his sword, Karl May’s books on how to fight Indians; that is how we must fight the Russians,” he said. This sentimental blend of primitivism and nationalism was in evidence in the 1920s. In a 1924 article on Karl May, the author Lisa Barthel-Winkler, who would later become a Nazi propagandist, presented the Indian as an allegory for the German. “In Winnetou, Karl May delineates the Indian drama,” she wrote. “It is also the German drama.…Who has grasped the meaning of the Indian drama, has also grasped the meaning of the German drama.”

This interpretation of the “Indian drama” reflected a widely held belief. So convinced were Germans of their bond with the Indians that they expected Native Americans to take up arms against the Americans during the Second World War. The clash between imaginary and real experience could not have been more violent; not only did Native Americans distinguish themselves in battle as Allied soldiers, they developed anti-German war songs. Translated into English, a typical verse from a Lakota war song reads, “Friends, observe this: I saw the German enemy come charging. / Friends, the German loved his land, / but I made him retreat and turn back.”

The fascist inflection of the “Indian drama” — one that held sway in Germany until the fall of National Socialism — is evident in the German travel writer Hans Rudolf Rieder’s writings on Buffalo Child Long Lance, a presumed blood Indian. “The Indian is closer to the German than to any other European,” Rieder wrote in his 1929 introduction to Long Lance’s autobiography. “This is perhaps due to our partiality to the world of nature. Negroes, Eskimos, peoples of the South Seas do not possess the human qualities to win our friendship and arouse our sympathy.”

Buffalo Child Long Lance was many things, but he was not what Rieder thought. Born and raised in the American South, Long Lance, a.k.a. Sylvester Long, was himself of mixed white, Native-American, and black ancestry, a fact he carefully concealed in his autobiography. Leaving his ‘coloured’ past behind him, Long renamed himself and began a brilliant career as a noble savage, dazzling European audiences with a metaphor of their own devising.

At more or less the same time that German nationalists began courting the Native American as a figure of fascist propaganda, a German-speaking Jewish writer from Prague produced a short meditation on the myth. This elegant text returns us to the experience of longing that sustains the hobbyist romance. What are the Germans (or anybody, for that matter) really longing for when they are, in the words of Franz Kafka, Longing to be a Red Indian?

Oh to be a Red Indian, instantly prepared, and astride one’s galloping mount, leaning into the wind, to skim with each fleeting quivering touch over the quivering ground, till one shed the spurs, for there were no spurs, till one flung off the reins, for there were no reins, and could barely see the land unfurl as a smooth-shorn heath before one, now that horse’s neck and horse’s head were gone.

Not only is Kafka’s Red Indian “instantly prepared,” he is in constant motion, racing forward as if hovering just above the ground. The disappearance of spurs, reins, and, ultimately, of the horse, heralds his arrival in a world composed entirely of speed and motion. But this is not the only disappearance at stake in this fable. When Kafka published this text, in 1913, the romantic image of the Native American was heightened by predictions of impending extinction. The shadow of extinction hangs over this fable and inhabits the longing it portrays; it is a longing for what is absent, for what is just out of reach.

The longing to be a Red Indian has changed very little since Franz Kafka reflected on the subject in the early Twentieth Century. What has changed is the expectation of realizing it. For Kafka and his contemporaries, the Native American had only recently stepped from the pages of adventure novels into the choreographed frontier of the travelling Wild West Show. The romance of nativeness was an enchanting force, but neither hobbyism nor, more recently, cultural tourism had joined it to a promise of real contact. What hobbyism did for the dress-up Indians of post-war Germany, cultural tourism is doing for a new wave of Indianists.

Upon my return to Canada, an ocean away from the cultural delirium of underclothed, overtanned, tomahawk-wielding Deutschen, I found that I really wasn’t that far away. Germans are looking to explore the cultural and geographical roots of their Indian feelings, and they are looking to Canada. In 2001, according to a report from Tourism BC, Germans were the highest-spending visitors to British Columbia, responsible for forty-four percent of all European revenues. German tourism had almost doubled in the preceding ten years, to become an annual $450-million industry. Aboriginal tourism is expanding at an even faster rate, with initiatives such as the 2001 convention held in Vancouver by Dertour — Germany’s top-selling North-American tour operator — pushing the industry forward by as much as thirty percent annually. The spectrum of aboriginal cultural tourism is extremely wide, ranging from mass tourist sites such as the Indian Village at the Calgary Stampede to immersion experiences in remote reserves. Siegrid Deutschlander, who is completing her PhD on Germans and the aboriginal tourism industry at the University of Calgary, remarked of her experience at locations such as the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, “What is noticeable is that, if there are international visitors at these sites, there are lots of Germans. Go to a powwow and you always hear German.”

Like their immigrant predecessors of the early Nineteenth Century, German cultural tourists are leaving their homeland with great expectations of the western world, and of its aboriginal occupants. Trina Mather, president of Turtle Island, an Ottawa company that offers “aboriginal experiences,” has grown accustomed to the expectation among German visitors that her employees will be exotically sealed in the past. To counteract this image of a museum culture, the performers at Turtle Island greet visitors in their everyday clothes. “We are a modern people,” Mather commented, “and we are going to be wearing pants.” For tour groups anticipating a latter-day, first-contact experience, this emphasis on the contemporary often leads to confusion. Mather says that one of the first things she heard from German groups in the early days of her business was, “Where are the Indians?”

If Europeans are still wondering where the Indians are, it is not for lack of effort on the part of aboriginal tourism promoters. During the past decade, organizations such as the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia and the Northern Ontario Aboriginal Tourism Association have probed the desires of European tourists with ferocious enthusiasm — generating dozens of studies, outreach missions, and trade programs. Of all European tourists, the study found Germans are most likely to take an interest in authentic Aboriginal cultural experiences. David Grindlay, the marketing director for Northwest Territories tourism, spends much of his time on the European tourist-and-trade fare route, where it is not unusual to find handsomely appointed Indianists inquiring about the pleasures of the North. Germany, he says, is currently the fastest-growing European market for the area, and Germans who travel to the Canadian North, while often knowledgeable about native culture, are generally “fascinated by the pre-contact era, and the era after contact with Europeans.”

Authenticity, however, is no less ambivalent in the tourism industry than it is in the hobbyist industry. Tourists looking for an authentic aboriginal experience are sometimes disappointed to discover that Native American culture, like their own, has changed in the last 400 years. Native Americans living in Germany have encountered similar expectations from Indianists. In a recent interview with Indian Country Today, Lindbergh Namingha, the founder of an intercultural organization called the Native American Association of Germany, observed that hobbyists tend to approach native culture as “a living museum.” “I find it very offensive,” he says, “especially when they refuse to let true American Indians participate in their events. They say we’re too modern and believe we’ve lost our Native Americanness.” The negotiation of newness is a contentious issue on the German frontier. For many Germans, Native Americans represent an alternative to modernity.

After several years of field work at tourist sites, Siegrid Deutschlander is something of an expert on the meeting of real and imaginary Indians. Many of the German authenticity-seekers, she suggests, are looking for a version of the “living museum” experience described by Lindbergh Namingha. The Native American represents a form of primordial integrity — an alternative to modernity and consumerism. Deutschlander told me a story about a recent German visitor to Canada who complained that “Germany has no culture left; it’s all been Americanized.” For these Germans, aboriginal culture is the anti-thesis of Americanism. It is seen as “the authentic,” says Deutschlander, “the real.” The flip side to this celebration of realness is a disapproval, among Indianists of the more solemn variety, of Native Americans who have, allegedly, turned their back on their culture. After six years in Germany, Murray Small Legs, like Namingha, has had his fair share of encounters with Indianists who believe that they are more aboriginal than actual aboriginals.

Germans who visit aboriginal tourist sites, particularly serious Indianists, frequently become repeat visitors. Among Deutschlander’s research subjects are Germans who have been attending powwows and sweat lodges for as many as twenty-five years. A rare few settle here, embodying the pioneer spirit. Adolf Hungry Wolf is one such enthusiast. Mr. Hungry Wolf, who makes a brief appearance in Thomas King’s latest novel, Truth and Bright Water, where he is described, quite accurately, as a “German guy” who “speaks good Blackfoot and lives in the woods,” is an author of numerous books on nature, native cultures, and railroad history. He homesteads in the Canadian Rockies with his Blackfoot wife and children, and it seems safe to conclude that, after having lived for over thirty years in a secluded cabin without phone or electricity, he has graduated from the ranks of hobbyist.

Canadian aboriginals have been divided in their response to the growing wave of German attention. Trina Mather noted that the advantages of tourism, both economic and cultural, have to be carefully weighed against traditionalist concerns about the presentation of aboriginal culture. Like Murray Small Legs, Mather stressed that Native Americans are, for the most part, appreciative of visitors who express an interest in their culture. “[Still] there’s a limit to what can be shared without going into aspects of politics and spirituality that shouldn’t be part of a tourist experience,” she said.

But conventional tourist experience is very far from what serious Indianists are after when they come to North America. “I think a lot of Germans want to have a special relationship with a native person, a friendship,” Deutschlander said. “I think, subconsciously, Karl May’s stuff comes out here. Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, blood brotherhood that withstood all odds.” In fact, according to Deutschlander, serious hobbyists want nothing short of a homecoming. These Indianist visitors, she observed, “are saying, ‘we are going back to our own past, and the only place we find it is in North America.’” Present-day Native Americans are not simply the guardians of their own ancient culture; they are seen by some visiting Germans as curators of the German past. These Germans are returning to their roots, not in a metaphorical but in a very literal, particular sense. “They want to experience sweat lodges, and they want to go onto the reserves and stay in a teepee,” says Deutschlander. “For them, that’s authentic. They say ‘that’s how we all used to be — we were all tribal cultures, we were all tribal societies.”

In the early days of the Canadian aboriginal-tourism business, before the era of trade fairs and marketing conventions, a young Cree entrepreneur decided to surprise a group of German tourists by showing up at the Winnipeg airport accompanied by a cameraman. But the Germans also surprised their Cree host by stepping off the airplane in full aboriginal regalia. The scene, as I imagine it, resembled a Las Vegas convention. The German ‘Chief’ steps forward, an elaborate headdress flowing behind him, wondering why his host is wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Is this the real thing, he wonders, the Canada I have heard about? They make their way through the bustling hallways of the Winnipeg airport. Who is more surprised? The German expecting the authentic Indian or the Indian expecting the authentic German?

This appeared in the October 2003 issue.

Adam Gilders